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Help, I’m Having Problems with My Dimmer Switch!

Have you ever had a light dimmer suddenly start acting up? Or, perhaps you’ve installed a new dimmer switch and it’s not working properly. This is a very common issue, and there are a few typical culprits. Let’s take a look at how dimmers work, the most frequently encountered problems, and how to fix them.

Have you ever had a light dimmer suddenly start acting up? Or, perhaps you’ve installed a new dimmer switch and it’s not working properly. This is a very common issue, and there are a few typical culprits. Let’s take a look at how dimmers work, the most frequently encountered problems, and how to fix them.

How Light Dimmers Work

There are two major types of light dimmers, and the one you have most likely depends on the age of your house. Older homes may have something called a “variable resistor,” which controls how much voltage the bulb receives. If you have this type of dimmer – and it’s starting to give you problems – it’s a good idea to consider upgrading to the modern variety. These older dimmers are very inefficient, and release that “unused” voltage as heat (which could become a fire hazard).

The new version of the household dimmer actually turns the lights on and off 100-120 times per second – much too fast for the brain to notice flickering. This method doesn’t lose the large quantities of energy as heat like variable resistors and doesn’t run up your electric bill.

Dimmer Bulbs vs. “Regular” Bulbs

Some bulbs are rated for dimmers; some are not. CFL light bulbs, for example, are applauded for their high efficiency when compared to incandescents, but because they function based on gas discharge inside the tube, they’re not the best dimmers. Nonetheless, you can still find CFLs rated specifically for dimmers that include a dimmable ballast, minimizing the “jump” that happens from one level of lighting to another. Certain LEDs are also more “dimmable” than others based on their design.

Common Troubleshooting Tips

Some of the most common dimmer issues we hear include:

Flickering Lights

First question: Did you install the dimmer yourself? If so, you may have the blue and black dimmer wires reversed. If not, check out the bulb. If it’s a CFL, make sure it’s rated for a dimmer. For any bulb, ensure that it’s rated for 40+ watts. 

Buzzing Lights

In some cases, especially with incandescent bulbs, the filaments can buzz with the rapid undulation. Ensure the bulbs are rated for a dimmer.

Buzzing Dimmer Switch

Buzzing coming from the switch itself may be a sign of wattage overloading. If you have a multi-light system, try removing one or more of the bulbs to see if it resolves the issue.

If the dimmer simply isn’t working at all (but it worked before), and you live in an older home, you may have an older-type dimmer. Placing a dimmer-rated CFL bulb in one of these systems, for example, likely won’t work. At that point, consider upgrading.

If the dimmer switch is surprisingly hot, suddenly buzzing, crackling, hissing, or causing any other concerning symptoms, it’s probably time to call in the pros. You may have a dangerous wiring issue that needs more than DIY attention.


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